The start of Bill Norton’s snow season was almost undone by a $40 part.
It was his third year in business as owner of Ephrata Land Care Services Inc. in Ephrata, Pa. A snowstorm hit the area earlier than expected, and he and his employees were scrambling to prepare his equipment for the season’s first full day of work.
“Then we found out while checking equipment to make sure it was running that we had a bearing out on the salter,” says Norton, whose business serves about 45 customers. “They go out every two years or so, especially if you don’t maintain them. And I didn’t properly maintain them.”
Norton was in trouble. He needed to lay salt on his customers’ properties, immediately. And if he couldn’t use his salter, he was going to have to resort to a much slower process. But he called his supplier, and he was in luck.
“He had a bearing in stock and we could go get it fixed pretty quickly,” Norton says. “Had that not have been the case we would have had to do a lot of hand salting rather than salting with a spreader, and that would have taken copious amounts of time. That would have resulted in a lot of frustrated customers.”
Norton survived the scare, but he learned a vital lesson that day, one that fortunate contractors come to know by near-misses and unlucky owner-operators learn the hard way: At the end of every snow season, invest the time and resources in cleaning and maintaining your equipment. Dangers abound: Caked-on salt will eat right through solid steel; broken parts and bent blades lurk everywhere after months of snowfighting; the day-to-day demands of running a business can easily distract a contractor from following manufacturers’ recommended maintenance schedules.
Tend to these issues in the spring, or the next fall you could be scrambling like Norton or, worse, fixing equipment as the snow piles up and the customers get angry.
Just ask Monroe Mueller about that. He’s operations manager at Turf Tamers in York, Pa., a company with 54 snow-removal clients and 12 employees.
He thought he had done his due diligence one summer when he bought a used truck and plow. “When I worked the plow when I bought the truck everything seemed to be working properly,” Mueller says. “But then when I went to go use it two days before, because I like to make sure I have my equipment working … it’s not working.”
Mueller, mindful of a coming storm, called his supplier. But he didn’t have the same success Norton did. “I run to my supplier, and he says, ‘I can’t help you out right now, I have 12-15 other guys with the same issue. It won’t be until tomorrow when I can help you out.’ ”
But Mueller didn’t have that much time. He started in on the plow himself, but it was slow going—he didn’t have it fixed till two hours into the storm. “With 54 clients you’re talking—the phone starts ringing off the hook. ‘Where ya at? Where ya at?’ ” The fallout included angry customers, and a few who couldn’t afford to wait for Mueller to fix the plow. One was a hotel located at the top of a hill. “If they can’t get their customers up the hill they can’t book the room. They had no choice but to find somebody else.”
These days Mueller adheres to a strict schedule of postseason maintenance. “Take care of your fall equipment in the summertime, winter equipment in the fall or the end of the season,” he says. “I have a couple plows in the body shop right now getting straightened out before I store them away for the summer.”
Not that this is easy. Greg Toth, who owns Toth Property Services in Yorktown, Va., pays close attention to equipment maintenance, but even he has fallen prey to one of a contractor’s worst – yet understandable – habits: procrastination. The funny thing about the end of winter is that it’s also the beginning of spring. And if you’re a year-round contractor, the minute your clients stop needing you for plowing they start needing you for landscaping. There isn’t exactly a ton of time to get equipment in order at the end of the snow season.
Bill Norton says the everyday demands of running a service business are another inhibitor to postseason maintenance.
“You put it on the back burner, and before you know it the next snow storm’s hitting you in the fall or early winter and now your back’s against the wall again,” Norton says of the often rapid transition between seasons. “You have to find time somewhere along the line to take care of this issue.”
The past couple years, Toth says, the company would start the spring season and let its snow equipment sit. “We didn’t clean, we didn’t lubricate, we didn’t change fluids, which need to be done right after the snow season because of all the chemicals, the salt, the sand, the chlorides,” he says. “They get in there and eat steel very quickly.”
And, like many contractors, Toth uses his equipment year round. So procrastination on end-of-snow-season equipment maintenance has hurt his landscaping business as well as his snow removal. The bucket that gets bent during the winter won’t be immediately available for grading in the spring. “You had to postpone getting into that work [because] you had to do that maintenance and make sure everything was running properly,” Toth says.
So what’s Toth’s solution? If you can’t beat the calendar, join it.
“We’re going to schedule the maintenance at a certain time before we begin any type of landscaping,” he says. “When we transition out of the winter months we’re going to make sure … everyone knows we’re going to do this maintenance before we allow the machines to work on anything else. You’re gonna save money in the long run because these pieces of equipment are too expensive to treat like they don’t cost anything.”